We control the horizontal and the vertical

Having no internet did at least allow us to catch up on some TV. We just watched an episode of Bones which featured not only Bill S. Preston Esq. as a sleazy porn magnate but also Stephen Fry, playing himself a psychiatrist. An English psychiatrist with a fondness for tea and esoteric trivia. Very entertaining, although as a TV show it does feel like an extremely friendly but not particularly bright puppy.

The second season of Rome is well underway, and is following the pattern of the first very closely, in that the episodes written by Bruno Heller are character-driven and interesting, and the others… not so much. However they do fling in random sex and violence in the hope of keeping your attention until the next good episode. Overall the good bits more or less outweigh the bad, even if it’s not quite the show it could have been. As a depiction of Ancient Rome in all its squalor and nobility it’s probably a good deal more true to the essence of the era than Richard Burton in a toga.

Heroes continues to dazzle with its momentum, although I occasionally have that second-season Twin Peaks feeling that some characters have outlived their storyline and are casting about for a new one. At times like these I suspect that the writers are not so much planning ahead as frantically paying out train track ahead of the locomotive. Nevertheless there’s a general feeling that they know where the season is going to end up; certainly the first half of the season made overall sense even if the finer details were a bit blurry. I remain optimistic for the rest of the season. An extremely entertaining series. (I think I’m right entirely wrong in saying that Heroes started last night on the UK Sci-Fi Channel. fba notes that it starts next week with a double episode.)

Veronica Mars has so far impressed me greatly this year, striking just the right balance between the complexity of a story arc and the accessibility of weekly storylines. It also keeps the momentum going without sacrificing each episode’s individuality. The writers of Battlestar Galactica could learn a trick or two here. There’ve been a couple of clunkers, sadly, but overall the classic Mars spark is definitely present and I’m enjoying it more than Season 2. The worst I can say is that the supporting characters go AWOL so often that they’ve given up trying to explain their absence.

Spurred into action by a combination of Coalescent and a £15 Amazon deal, I’ve started watching season 1 of Life on Mars for the first time. Three episodes in and I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s an odd mixture of 95% crime show and 5% SF, but somehow it works. At times it reminds me peculiarly of Quantum Leap: on one level it’s an absolutely straightforward (even lightweight) pastiche of a 70’s crime show, but at the same time the time travel conceit adds a post-modern distance. Like Quantum Leap, the often nominal SF elements give you permission to enjoy the drama, and the show is able to highlight and exaggerate the differences between 1973 and the modern world. The constant hints that Sam may or may not be in a coma are becoming slightly wearing already, but again they add a level to the series and the central character that’s definitely interesting. Episode three managed to milk the ambiguity quite nicely for some fairly obvious metaphor in which the struggles in the past are a means to keep Sam fighting in the present. It’s hard to see, even at this early stage, how they can possibly resolve the ambiguity of the premise in any way which is satisfying. My preferred ending at the moment would be for both versions of reality to be true; Sam really is in a coma, but he’s somehow back in time as well, and having a verifiable impact on history. Alternatively they can leave things open, a technique I often enjoy but suspect might be simply infuriating here. Either way, I’m pleased that the second season is the last as it prevents the writers from having to string out the premise too far.

Random television things

Just as a quick heads up for those that consider Stargate to be a worthwhile waste of 44 minutes, it looks like Sky One have the world premiere of Stargate SG-1 10×11 (“The Quest, Part 2”) on Tuesday, and the same for Stargate Atlantis 3×11 (“The Return, Part 2”) on Thursday Wednesday. Neither show returns from its mid-season break in the US for a couple of months.

Edit: I forgot to mention that the third season of Battlestar Galactica starts its UK airing right after SG-1 on Tuesday. I’d say it’s well worth a look for those who haven’t watched it yet. Not as strong as the beginning of Season 2, but an improvement on the thin and patchy material that characterised the end of the season.

Meanwhile Series 6 of Waking the Dead starts tonight on BBC1 (with part 2 tomorrow). I’m not sure how we got into this show as we never watch UK crime drama, unless you count Spooks, but it’s an enjoyable and surprisingly consistent series. Trevor Eve’s character is a complete curmudgeon in a way that, like Hugh Laurie in House, teeters on the brink of parody but never quite goes all the way there.

House itself returns in the US next Tuesday, weeks before most other US series, although HBO’s Rome is also back on Sunday 14th Jan. We enjoyed the beginning and end of Rome‘s first season, but the middle was entirely trashy.

Of Documentaries and Dramas

I’m increasingly unimpressed by the docudrama as a medium for… well anything. The BBC’s Ancient Rome series being a case in point. I’m very happy to have my historical movies be dodgy bastardisations of the truth with minimal relationship to reality (see: Braveheart, Gladiator, The Patriot), because their primary goal is to entertain and to generate emotion. I demand a great deal more attention to detail from a documentary, whose primary goal is to inform. The problem with the docudrama is that it claims to be a documentary while deploying all the tools of entertainment, and winds up being neither factually rigorous nor particularly entertaining. Instead it’s a half-baked compromise: a supposed drama in which characterisation and dramatic storytelling are almost entirely absent, but which bends the truth as much as a drama.

The problem is that while composed of fictionalised scenes the docudrama does away with all those pesky dramatic elements such as character development. It has no need to establish a set of dramatic characters with whom we empathise – instead the authoritative voice-over handily skips all of that – or to involve us in a personal viewpoints or develop themes and meaning. Instead what passes for a narrative is more like a series of edited highlights, lazily skipping from scene to scene with the illusion of authority, presenting only the most lurid exploits or moments of violence. This might be excusable if the sequence of events were detailed and informative, but unfortunately it’s impossible to tell. The generally sensationalist tone transforms everything into the style of a TV mini-series. Despite solemn assurances in the opening captions that everything is based on historical advice, it’s impossible to tell how solid a basis there is for any of the things we’re watching. Are these facts, accounts, interpretations, opinions, the most likely of several alternatives? Which is which, and how can we tell? We get no sources for what we’re seeing, no debate, no discussion of alternative possibilities.

The first two episodes of Ancient Rome have portrayed an insane Nero in a sensationalistic light with a performance of barely restrained hammery from the ubiquitous Michael “Not Martin” Sheen (depicting Nero as some kind of bizarre blend of his recent turns as Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams). The second showed a more restrained but still overblown depiction of Julius Caesar’s ruthless rise to power. What’s always fascinating when viewing a familiar historical tale in a new version is the massive differences between them. This docudrama seemed no more or less plausible than any other tale of Caesar, including the recent BBC/HBO co-production Rome (from which this series seems to draw most of its sets) and yet one portrays Caesar as charismatic and shrewd, the other conniving and brutal. One portrays Pompey as weak and hesitant, the other as noble and commanding, undermined by scheming politicians. Neither version varies the key facts and events, but both drape an entirely different interpretation on them. It’s obvious to say, though never more clear, that we can never truly know what historical figures were actually like, moment to moment, day to day. We can only interpret, thinking our interpretation logical and plausible. And that’s the real problem with the docudrama, because it does away with uncertainty as surely as any drama. What we get is a single account lent the weight of an authoritative version, possibly based on painstaking research, or possibly just the most entertaining of all possible histories.

Speaking of Michael Sheen, this weekend we also watched the dramatised biographical piece about HG Wells on BBC2. HG Wells


Some random things floating through my brain today:

I’ve just joined the 21st centurybought a USB cable to connect my Motorola mobile phone to my PC. I know it’s nearly Christmas but, er, it was cheap and I wanted it now. (Now, dammit!) Am very impressed at its coolness and entirely frivolous ability to transfer photos on and off my phone. So very shiny. Now I just need to find a way to use the opening of the Firefly theme as my ringtone.

Seen on Sunderland newstand today: “DEFENDER RETURNS FOR CATS”. Sadly the story does not, as I’d gleefully imagined, concern a footballer hurriedly running off the pitch having forgotten to feed his cats.

I’m not saying standards have fallen at the BBC in recent years, but tonight’s episode of Rome was described by the (female) continuity announcer as “…girl-on-girl action in Rome here on BBC2”.

David Cameron may have out-Blaired Tony Blair at the ballot box, but it appears to have caused Maggie Thatcher to actually turn in her gravehairdresser’s. She’s “feeling faint”, apparently.

The Radio Times have foregone their typical Christmas cover of nostalgic bygone days of yore in favour of, yes, a nostalgic Tardis in a snow globe. Plus there’s a competition where you can own an actual Dalek. (Until it commits suicide because the Christmas turkey has tainted its racial purity.) It must signify something that Doctor Who merits higher billing than Christmas, I’m just not sure what. At least it wasn’t an Eastenders cover.


Having now seen the whole first season of Rome (delivered by Mercury Couriers, delivery service to the gods) I can still heartily recommend the show. Even if your wife isn’t obsessed with ancient Rome.

The series is an odd creation: at times high brow, at times sleazy and voyeuristic, but mostly just human. Having edited the first three episodes into two, creating an impression of breakneck pace and non-stop sex, the BBC have reverted to the HBO episodes for the remainder of the season. Which is not to say that the impression left by their hatchet job is misleading… but it does perhaps overbalance the show towards its more sensationalist tendencies and away from the human drama at its core.

No plot details…

Friends, Romans, BBC2 viewers…

Tomorrow sees the debut of the drama series Rome on BBC2, with a first season of 11 episodes (the second season is already confirmed). It’s a BBC-HBO co-production, which means that it has a lot of British actors in it but otherwise leans towards the HBO house style in every respect. Although the BBC are trailering it as if it’s the next big costume drama, it bears far more resemblance to HBO’s Deadwood.

Opinions without spoilers….